Judge restricts public access to statements, grand jury evidence in Fravel two-day pretrial hearing

By Denise Lana,

Pictured speaking with media outside of the Winona County Courthouse are (l-r) Madeline Kingsbury’s father David Kingsbury, step-mother Cathy Kingsbury, mother Krista Naber and sister Megan Kingsbury. Media outlets from Rochester, Minneapolis, St Paul, northeastern Iowa, and La Crosse, Wis., attended the two-day pretrial hearings March 19 and 20. (Driftless Multimedia photos by Denise Lana)

The morning of Tuesday, March 19, ushered in the first day of spring with a thick chill clad in frigid gusting winds across the North Star state. Inside the Winona County Courthouse in Winona, Minn., the atmosphere was equally chilly as people gathered outside a third-floor courtroom. News reporters quietly congregated, law enforcement officials hastened to and fro, and a huddle of 20-somethings whispered hushed conversation. A quartet of people broached the landing at the far staircase and queued up adjacent to the group of young women, who noticeably became more animated with the quartet’s arrival. Whispered conversation turned frantic buzz, and the nervous silence became heavy. 

The tense void was fractured split-second, as the paternal figure in the quartet bellowed out, “If you are so threatened by me, why are you sitting next to me, then?” The man’s words were obviously and angrily directed at the group of younger women. One woman immediately exited the area, hurrying down the stairs. Within moments, the young lady returned with a sheriff’s deputy, who silently stood watch across from the two groups.

The shouting man was Richard Fravel, who was joined by his wife, adult son and adult daughter to support youngest son and brother, alleged murderer Adam Fravel. 

The youngest Fravel was charged June 7, 2023, with two counts of second-degree murder of off-and-on girlfriend, Madeline Kingsbury, who was a close friend to several of the women who were yelled at by the Fravel patriarch. Kingsbury went missing March 31, and her remains were located north of Mabel, Minn., June 7. Fravel remained in jail under a $2 million bond, which was increased to $3 million in October 2023, after a grand jury returned additional charges of first-degree murder and aggravated first degree murder. 

Soon, court officials queued up family and friends, news and media persons, checking each one for security hazards before allowing them to enter the courtroom. Fravel’s family made their way to a wooden pew behind the defense counsel table, with the news reporters scattering across the rear of the gallery. The group of young women sat shoulder-to-shoulder behind the parents and sister of Kingsbury, who sat together in the front row behind the state’s counsel table. 

Fravel was soon escorted into the room, clad in orange — his face and demeanor expressionless. Ambient voices hushed and the room turned pin-drop silent as Presiding Judge Nancy Buytendorp took her place at the bench and started the proceedings. 

Tuesday’s hearing addressed numerous pretrial motions submitted by the state and the defense earlier this year. Motions included the defendant’s motion to change venue, motion to dismiss the state’s aggravated charge, motion to dismiss one charge of first-degree murder, motion to find inadmissible any evidence, testimony, or documents relating to Kingsbury’s medical history, motion to restrict video and audio evidence from being made public during pretrial hearings, and motion to restrict grand jury documents and evidence from being made public during pretrial hearings. 

Buytendorp scheduled the change of venue motion for April 30, with the remaining motions being addressed March 19 and 20.

First to be addressed was a motion for a restrictive order requesting that during pretrial hearings, the public be denied access to grand jury transcripts and grand jury exhibits. This was based, in part, on the defense seeking a change of venue, with Fravel alleging he cannot receive a fair and impartial trial in Winona County because of the extensive media coverage. If the public had access to the grand jury records and transcripts, those records and transcripts could be skewed to the point of being inaccurate and prejudicial, hindering a fair and impartial trial. 

A second motion for a restrictive order was also addressed, this time regarding public access to audio and video conversations and statments made between Fravel and law enforcement, specifically from March 31 through April 2.

In both motions, Zachary Bauer, Fravel’s defense attorney, emphasized all the statments and evidence contains substantial material facts and information that has not been released publicly.  He reiterated this in court, stressing that due to the substantial amount of public interest and media coverage, if the audio and video statements became public, they could be “sliced and diced and put together in a way that might not be accurate.” Furthermore, public audio and video might have a prejudicial impact, eliminating a fair and impartial jury and trial. 

The next motion presented to the court requested that the defense be prohibited from eliciting or admitting any testimony, documents, or other physical evidence regarding Kingsbury in relation to any prescription medication or controlled substances, medical records, or information regarding diagnosed physical or mental health conditions, or medical therapy or professional counseling sessions. Additionally, if the defense intended to submit any of these, they would need to give prior appropriate notification to the state. 

Buytendorp then addressed defense’s motion requesting the suppression of law enforcement statements due to Fravel not being Mirandized prior to the statements being collected. 

According to Bauer, Fravel was not read his Miranda rights before being questioned by the initial officer on scene, nor was he Mirandized before two encounters with Winona Police Department Investigator Anita Sobotta and WPD Deputy Chief Jay Rasmussen. 

Officer Ethan Sense, a patrol officer with WPD, was the officer who received the call March 31 regarding Kingsbury’s disappearance. Sense took the stand, where he testified that when he arrived at the residence shared by Fravel and Kingsbury, Fravel was not there. Sense called and texted Fravel, who did not answer or reply. Sense testified that he confirmed the cell number he had for Fravel was a good number, and he continued trying to contact Fravel regarding Kingsbury’s whereabouts. Sense dialed a second number and reached a female he believed to be Fravel’s mother. Sense also believed he heard a younger male’s voice in the background of the call and believed the voice to be Fravel’s voice. Sense testified he understood Fravel would call him back, and a short time later, Sense received a call from Fravel’s father. Sense said he made phone contact with Fravel later, engaging in a conversation with Fravel for five to 10 minutes. Sense confirmed there was no in-person contact that night with Fravel or his family, and Sense wrapped up his testimony saying that his purpose for contacting Fravel was that he was “trying to reach Madeline.” 

Winona Police Department Investigator Sobotta

Next on the stand was Sobotta, a 23-year seasoned police officer and investigator. She testified that it was common for her to interview people with more than one investigator with her, as two people complement one another and can catch something that might be overlooked. Sobotta stated she was dressed in plain clothes with a badge, wore handcuffs and a handgun and drove an unmarked car April 1, 2023, when she went to Fravel’s family home in Mabel, Minn. According to Sobotta, Fravel was already at his parents’ home when she arrived. She and another officer were invited inside, but they stayed on the porch because there were dogs and kids inside the house, and it was noisy. She spoke to Fravel and his father on the porch, and the entire conversation was recorded on her body camera. Sobotta testified that Fravel wanted to show her text messages on his phone, and his phone was then collected as evidence. She said that at no time was her gun pulled or handcuffs removed from her belt. Sobotta then said that Fravel went inside the house to get a jacket, and the conversation ended with the exchange of phone numbers. 

Sobotta was then asked about her April 2 encounter with Fravel. She testified that she called Fravel’s father’s (Richard’s) phone, and they arranged to meet Fravel in Rushford, Minn. Rasmussen accompanied Sobotta to talk with Fravel, and she had her body camera running for the entirety. They drove in an unmarked car and met up with Fravel at the Rushford Kwik Trip. They waved at Fravel, who was in his vehicle, and he followed them to the Rushford Police Department. Sobotta described the RPD, saying it looks more like a city hall. As they arrived and entered RPD, there was a uniformed officer there who let them in, but the officer departed the premises right after. Sobotta explained it was her first time at RPD. Testimony continued, with her saying there were no threats given to Fravel, nor was he under arrest. He was given water, and there were no keys used to let him out of the building. Sobotta said that when the interview was over, Fravel got up, walked out, and left in his vehicle. Sobotta confirmed she had received training regarding Miranda rights, and she confirmed she knew that a “soft” Miranda was a less-formal summarization of the formal Miranda rights. She confirmed she did not Mirandize Fravel April 2, nor did Rasmussen. 

Sobotta said there were approximately 10 officers working on the case April 1, confirming the same number of officers for April 2. She testified the drive to Fravel’s parents’ home was about a half hour from Winona, and they decided to meet in Rushford to save time, and because there were kids and dogs and noise at Fravel’s parents’ home, RPD would be a quieter place where they could talk in private. Sobotta said the April 2 interview lasted approximately 90 minutes. She confirmed that after the April 1 interview with Fravel, the department continued investigating. 

When asked how many interviews of others were done in a police setting, Sobotta replied she did not know. Sobotta did testify that after the April 1 interview, but before the April 2 interview, she became aware of video of Fravel taken at the local Kwik Trip. When asked if anyone else was considered a possible suspect and interviewed for 90 minutes, Sobotta said she did not know. 

When asked if, during the April 2 interview with Fravel, she ever said she didn’t believe what Fravel was saying, Sobotta said yes. When asked if she ever said, “That’s bull [expletive],” during the conversation, Sobotta said yes. Sobotta testified that talking with Fravel April 1 was done to gather information. When asked if the April 2 meeting was done with the purpose of getting a confession from Fravel, Sobotta said it was to get more information about Fravel and Kingsbury. She elaborated, saying that Fravel’s timelines didn’t match up, and she was in disbelief about some of his timelines. Sobotta testified that Rasmussen voiced the same concern about the timelines not jibing. 

Sobotta cited that during the conversation with Fravel April 2, there were “points of pushback”, but then Fravel would often then say, “Well that doesn’t make sense.” 

When asked if Sobotta thought Fravel was a suspect while she was talking with him, Sobotta replied, “There was not one point during my interview where I thought he did it.” She did say that on April 1 she felt “he could have maybe been involved or maybe not,” and on April 2, she had “a more firm feeling.” When asked if there was any other equal or “more (than) equal” suspect, Sobotta said, “No.” 

The state then questioned Sobotta, and the investigator confirmed that time plays a role when investigating and questioning people of interest. She confirmed that other officers were conducting interviews at the same time she was interviewing Fravel. Sobotta testified that other witnesses were interviewed at WPD, confirming that they were looking into the alibi of at least one other person. When asked if it was more important to get a confession or get answers, she replied, “To get answers.” Sobotta specified that she could not recall if the alibi of the other person was confirmed before the April 2 Fravel conversation, but she added it was possible. When asked if there was no-one who was a bigger suspect than Fravel after the other person’s alibi had been confirmed, Sobotta said, “Correct.” 

Deputy Chief Rasmussen

Sobotta was dismissed, and Rasmussen took the stand. Many of the questions asked of Rasmussen were identical or like the ones asked of Sobotta. In a nutshell, Rasmussen testified that he was a police officer with 24 years of experience, including nearly five years as an investigator, 10 years as sergeant, and four years as deputy chief. 

Rasmussen testified that the first time ever he met Fravel was at RPD April 2, when Rasmussen and Sobotta questioned Fravel. Rasmussen was a passenger in an unmarked police car driven by Sobotta, and they arrived at RPD at the same time as Fravel. No police lights were used, and Rasmussen testified that he did not brandish his handgun or take out his handcuffs and wave them around. Rasmussen said he was wearing civilian clothing on April 2, along with a protective vest. He confirmed his badge was visible, and he did not have police patches or American flag emblems on his clothing or vest. Rasmussen testified he was wearing a “watered down” utility belt, comprised of a handgun and handcuffs, a detachable ammunition magazine and his police badge. His body cam recorded the entire interview without pauses, Fravel was offered water and was never under arrest, and there were no threats or promises made to Fravel. 

Like Sobotta, Rasmussen testified that yes, the department was doing a lot of interviews saying, “We had people coming and going from WPD.” At the end of the interview on April 2, according to Rasmussen, Fravel said he had “kind of put his walls up,” but Fravel did continue inquiring about his personal computer.  

According to Rasmussen’s testimony, the interview lasted around 90 minutes, and neither Rasmussen nor Sobotta Mirandized Fravel. Rasmussen reinforced Sobotta’s testimony about why they met Fravel at RPD, testifying that Rushford was a convenient halfway point between Winona and Mabel. Going into the April 2 interview, Rasmussen testified he knew the conversation with Fravel was going to run longer than the previous day’s conversation performed by Sobotta at the Fravel family home. On April 2, there was a lot of confusion, and there were points in the interview where Fravel’s story just didn’t add up. Rasmussen confirmed that on April 2 he may have said “it’s not adding up” or “there’s more to this.” According to Rasmussen, there were sporadic moments, about halfway into the conversation with Fravel, when Rasmussen felt things were not adding up, but he did testify that he did not Mirandize Fravel, because their conversation never got to the point where he felt it was necessary. 

“It was all about finding Maddi,” Rasmussen recalled on the stand.  

When asked if he felt there was a potential of a confession from Fravel on April 2, Rasmussen replied, “I think there’s that thought in just about any interview we do.”  

“It was always in our mind he was a potential suspect,” Rasmussen said but then added that he wanted to be careful and not “get too tunnel visioned.” 

Rasmussen recalled that Fravel left the April 2 conversation a few minutes prior to his and Sobotta’s departure from RPD and that he and Sobotta did not discuss further the conversation with Fravel. 

Rasmussen was queried regarding his history with Mirandizing. Had he ever Mirandized someone who then continued talking and confessed? Rasmussen said yes. Had he ever not Mirandized someone, and then that someone stopped the interview from taking place? Rasmussen said yes. 

When asked if follow up questions are common after an initial interview, Rasmussen said yes. Were there other people of interest who had been interviewed a second time after their initial interview? Rasmussen said yes. Were those people witnesses or suspects? Rasmussen explained that people who had been interviewed more than once included family members and a male friend of Kingsbury. Rasmussen said that those people were not generally considered suspects, but stressed, “We have to be open to everything or we’re not doing our jobs.” 

When asked if his priority of finding Maddi was any reason why he would want a false confession, Rasmussen declared, “Oh heavens no.” 

Rasmussen was dismissed, and the state and defense had no further witnesses to call for questioning. Court was dismissed for the day, and all parties departed without incident.

Day two

‘A thousand leagues’

Court reconvened Wednesday, March 20, at 10 a.m., at which time Judge Buytendorp addressed the two motions for restrictive orders regarding public access to grand jury evidence and statements made by Fravel to law enforcement March 31 through April 2, 2023.  The judge agreed with both motions and issued restrictive orders regarding public access to grand jury evidence and statements, as well as audio, video, and documented conversatins between Fravel and law enforcement March 31 through April 2.   

Addressed next was the defense’s motion asking the court to dismiss the aggravated portion of one of his murder charges, citing lack of evidence. The defense submitted Rasmussen’s statement from the previous day as exhibit, and the state did not object. Submitted in support of the motion were both grand jury transcripts as well as all exhibits used by the grand jury as basis for their decision of aggravated murder. 

The court then heard discussion regarding the defense’s motion seeking dismissal of one of the first-degree murder charges, also citing lack of evidence. Submitted in support of the motion were the same grand jury transcripts and exhibits from the previous motion regarding aggravated charges. 

With rulings on several of these motions still pending, both the state and defense were given until mid-May to submit arguments before the judge ruled on them. Buytendorp dismissed the court, reminding everyone of the next hearing April 30, at which time the defense’s request for a change of venue will be discussed. 

Fravel, who had remained impassive throughout the two-day court session, was escorted out of the court to return to Winona County Detention Center. 

As Kingsbury’s family exited the courthouse, the blustery winds remained constant, staving any signs of impending spring weather. 

Kingsbury’s father, David Kingsbury, paused to talk with various media reporters about his feelings regarding the court hearings so far. 

“A journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step,” Kingsbury proclaimed. “We’ve had a few baby steps; this is just another one. We’re just checking off the boxes right now, and we are getting somewhere.” 

Regarding the approaching one-year anniversary of his daughter’s death and disappearance, Kingsbury lamented, “Truly there are no words to describe it. You can’t get to the depth of emotion by talking about it. We really can’t convey it to you. It’s horrible, and it’s a nightmare.” 

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